Curt Michel, 1934-2015

I was very saddened to learn yesterday of the death of Curt Michel, one of the earliest members of the pathbreaking Space Science Department at Rice. Here’s a link to a wonderful article from 2009 by Mike Williams of Public Affairs, which mentions that Curt donated his papers and memorabilia from his time as an astronaut to the Woodson. The biographical note to that collection does a pretty good job of laying out the facts of his life and career:

Frank Curtis Michel was born June 5, 1934, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He attended high school in Sacramento, California, and went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from California Institute of Technology in 1955, graduating with honors. After working briefly as an engineer, he served in the United States Air Force as a pilot from 1955 to 1958.

Michel then returned to California Institute of Technology, where be received a Ph.D. in physics in 1962. He continued as a Research Fellow in Physics at the Institute until April, 1963 when he accepted a position as assistant professor in the newly established Space Science Department at the Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston, Texas.

Michel’s entry into the field of space physics proved timely, for a national effort was underway to accelerate scientific research programs needed in the nation’s space endeavors. Two years earlier, President John F. Kennedy had enunciated a national goal to place a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Academic programs useful to the projected Apollo spaceflights were thus undergoing intense evaluation by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) together with the National Academy of Sciences and with other interested federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

A Space Science Summer Study, conducted in 1962 and involving more than one hundred scientists from universities, private research organizations, industry, and the government recognized the potential for scientific investigation which could be carried out on manned missions of NASA’s Apollo spacecraft. They proposed establishment of a program for training scientists as astronauts to participate in the Apollo flights and in later space programs.

The following year, specific recommendations for such a program were presented to Congress by the Space Science Board, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences which served as the main liaison between NASA and the American scientific community. The Board’s Ad Hoc Committee on Scientific Qualifications of Scientist-Astronauts began work in May, 1964, to establish scientific criteria for applicants.

Michel’s qualifications as a scientist who was also an experienced pilot made him a likely candidate for such a program, and he was attracted by the possibility of combining his expertise and special interest in solar winds with his desire to take part in space flight. His interest was shared by Dr. Alexander J. Dessler, director of Rice’s Department of Space Science, who was an early supporter of the proposed Scientist-Astronaut program. Furthermore, Rice’s Space Science Department had a close relationship with NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center near Houston (MSC, later Johnson Space Center). Departmental research projects, funded in part from NASA grants, were of direct benefit to NASA’s programs, and MSC personnel were among those coming to Rice for graduate training.

Michael was thus in a fortunate position to take advantage of these new developments. When NASA officially established the Scientist-Astronaut program and began recruiting in October, 1964 Michel applied and was one of six accepted into the first group in June, 1965.

As a Scientist-Astronaut Michel spent six months in orientation training at MSC (he was already a qualified pilot and thus exempt from basic flight training). His work assignment was primarily to plan for the Apollo Applications Program (AAP, later known as the Skylab program). In September, 1966, Michel was appointed to monitor progress on the Apollo Telescope Mount project (ATM), which involved working with specialists at the Marshall Space Flight Center. At various periods he also served on working groups concerned with Lunar Atmospheres, Manned Space Science Atmospherics, and Planetary Atmospheres. In addition to these duties, Michel participated in ongoing astronaut training and in maintaining his flight proficiency as a potential flight crew member.

In 1967, NASA established a review procedure to ensure that the scientist-astronauts had time for study and research in order to maintain proficiency in their particular areas. Although officially one day a week and one week a month were to be set aside for this purpose, it proved difficult in some cases to achieve this. Over a period of time Michel was among those concerned about being able to meet requirements as an astronaut along with those of a scientist.

When it became apparent in 1967 that budget problems (caused in part by the war in Vietnam) would decrease the number of Apollo flights and thus the possibility for assignment to one of the flight crews, Michel requested and was granted a year’s leave of absence to return to Rice in the fall of 1968 to teach and to pursue research. Michel resigned from NASA in August, 1969, when opportunities for space flight continued to appear unlikely and the time commitment for academic interests made remaining in the space program difficult.

He was a complicated and interesting person, one I always enjoyed talking with in no small part because he was capable of saying such surprising things. There are quite a few pictures of him in the archives. This one, taken (I believe) by Alex Dessler in 1965, is by far my favorite:

Space Science Curt Michel  June 28, 1965

Curt Michel, RIP.

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2 Responses to Curt Michel, 1934-2015

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Higher Geometry by William C. Graustein, Ph.D. | Rice History Corner

  2. Pingback: Tech Thursday: NorthStar Horizon | What's in Woodson

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